Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu May 27, 2010 5:37 pm 
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[Originally reviewed as part of the New Directors/New Films series at Lincoln Center in March, now in US theatrical release and opening at Bay Area theaters May 28, 2010.]


A film about cinema and family

The life and death of legendary French independent film producer Humbert Balsam, who got many an edgy project made against all odds, is the inspiration for Mia Hansen-Løve's second feature, an elegant, sensitive portrait of a passionate man of the cinema and those around him in the period up to and after his suicide. The Father of My Children confirms the impression already given by the director's 2006 All Is Forgiven that she is a fine new talent with a special gift for delineating families and showing how children grow up under pressure with and without difficult fathers.

From the moment Grégoire Canvel (a very fine Louis-Do de Lencquesaing) walks onto the screen in the first frame smoking and talking on his cell phone, he dominates the film until he vanishes. Grégoire is always well-dressed, genial, and charming. (Hansen-Løve has described Balsan, who encouraged her to make her first film, as a man of "exceptional warmth, elegance and aura.") He adores his young daughters Valentine (Alice Gautier) and Billie (Manelle Driss) and more grownup one, Clémence (Alice de Lencquesaing of Summer Hours), and his loyal, loving, but sometimes complaining Italian wife Sylvia (Chiara Caselli); he's unfailingly affectionate with all of them. But he may not remember the earrings from Venice that he gave Clémence, and he may spoil a trip to Italy for Sylvia by disappearing for long business calls.

The first sequence, a drive in a Volvo station wagon to his big country house outside Paris to spend the evening with his family, is an indication how things are gong. The police stop Grégoire for speeding and not fastening his seat belt, his car is impounded, and he's taken to the local station because he's "run out of points." Grégoire is running out of points everywhere. His catalogue has been used for collateral for loans. He has an enormous debt at the film lab. Friendly meetings with his lawyer and his banker don't help. An eccentric Swedish director is costing him a fortune for a shoot outside Malmö. A team of Korean filmmakers is arriving to be hosted and turns out to be double the expected number. At his office his own Moon Films team, his second, surrogate, family, faces a host of problems, most of them financial. Nevertheless when he gets home that night and Valentine and Billie, charming and happy, put on a little show, he delights in it. He excels at hiding the pressures he's under.

Grégoire seems unstoppable. He must take the bus but makes a virtue of that, meeting a new filmmaker and reading the script of another while riding into town (he wants to use both). While warnings are being sounded everywhere, he keeps surging forward. The charm still flows and so does the enthusiasm for filmmaking and willingness to take on exciting but tricky projects. He champions artists: that's what he cares about, not making money -- though one of his current productions at least seems to be a small success. Still, he knows that the situation is becoming increasingly dire. And the very thing he lives for -- the excitement of pursuing a host of projects at once, which keeps him on the phone even when he's "vacationing" with his family -- is also wearing him down with its relentless tension. Hiding the pressure doubtless heightens its inward effect on him. Moon Films is going to go down. From a wealthy industrialist family, Grégoire considers as a last resort going to relatives to ask for the millions of Euros he now needs to rescue his company from debt. And he knows they would have them, but he can't face the humiliation of taking this step.

With the film's typical delicacy, signs of Grégoire's final meltdown are subtle. He "takes a nap," he stares into space, he goes to "get some air." And then there is the sudden and violent finale.

But that is only the film's midpoint. Paralleling the director's first film, which revisits a wayward dad years later in a second half, this one looks back on Grégoire, struggling to understand his death and discovering his weaknesses, his secrets, and his flaws. But more than that it shifts the focus to the family, the associates, and the company in the wake of Grégoire's sudden demise. Sylvia tries to save the company, going to Sweden to see if another producer can take over that film, talking to the head of the lab to see if it could swallow half the debt. In the end, Moon Films must go under. But Clémence has befriended Arthur (the director's brother, Igor Hansen-Løve) the young would-be filmmaker whose screenplay Grégoire had just taken on; with timid but firm steps, she sets forth in the world -- after finding out something about her father's mistakes and secrets. Sylvia talks of moving to Italy, but the girls all say absolutely no. One of the most touching scenes shows the little girls shaking hands and saying goodbye to Moon Films staff members. The force of the film is again, like Hansen-Love's first, to emphasize forgiveness, and moving forward.

Though Hansen-Løve's All Is Forgiven showed great promise, this is a richer, warmer, more complex film; and she's still in her twenties. With all due respect to Anne Andreu's documentary Humbert Balsan: Rebel Producer (shown at the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema 2007), Hansen-Løve's feature is far more the tribute Humbert Balsan deserves, and its accomplishment is that it gives a sense of the contradictions present in a remarkable man. And Balsan was remarkable: braving the financial pressures the champion of art films endures, he produced nearly 70 films, including Claire Denis's The Intruder, Lars von Trier's Manderlay, and Bela Tarr's The Man from London. De Lencquesaing and Caselli are excellent, but that's only the beginning. Hansen-Løve is great with children (marvelously alive and natural here) and this is an actors' film with many fine small parts, including Eric Elmosnino as Serge, Grégoire's associate; Sandrine Dumas as his office assistant, and Dominique Frot as Bérénice, his on-set production supervisor.

Hansen-Løve's films are both vivid and contemplative, a combination enhanced so far by choosing complex, problematic men as their starting point. An admirable sense of transparency in her work, an equal presence of both emotional depth and detachment, may arise from her skill at showing all points of view. The girls give us ample opportunity to question Grégoire's terrible action. "He didn't care about us," they say; but their mother defends him: "He did care, he adored you, but he was too overwhelmed, and for a minute he forgot." Grégoire was sensitive, charming, eccentric, passionate, but not always to be trusted: he ran away from things. But he still left a beautiful legacy. And The Father of My Children is part of Balsan's; All Is Forgiven is one of a number of projects he inspired that were completed after his suicide, and so Mia Hansen-Løve got her start through him.

After premiering at Cannes in the Un Certain Regard series (Special Jury Prize), Le Père de mes enfants opened in Paris December 16, 2009 to excellent reviews. An IFC release in the US, it is also included in the New Directors/New Films series shown at Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art, New York in March 2010. Included later in the SFIFF April 22-May 6. Opens in New York and Chicago on Friday, May 28 , 2010. (LA May 21).

Mia Hansen-Løve, courtesy IFC Films

Brief NYTimes interview with the director.
Longer British interview by Doug Cooper of Screenjabber:
First part.
Second part.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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